An Agnostic’s First Reading of the Torah

torahstock2 The Torah is about a lot of things. Not all of them are interesting: there’s the building of the tabernacle, the genealogies, the repetitions of rules and commandments… in this review-that’s-not-quite-a-review, I’m going to present here some of the most shocking, weird, and creepy parts that you’ll find in the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. Just in time for Halloween…☠

The most striking departure from what we are taught in Sunday school is that the Biblical God is pretty damn terrifying. Here’s a few examples:

  • He slays Onan for refusing to give seed to his brother (in Biblical Israel if a man dies and doesn’t have any children by his wife, the man’s brother has to marry the widow so that his lineage will continue). Onan’s older brother died by something similar – he didn’t want to impregnate his wife because it would ruin her body, so God killed him. “Be fruitful and multiply” was a command, dammit, not a suggestion!

  • While they were wandering in the desert, some people complained that all God gave them to eat was mana, so God sent plague-infected quail to punish them (Num. 11:22-23).

  • People complained again that there was no food or water, and God sent “fiery serpents” to bite them (Num. 21:5-21:6).

  • When Nadab and Abihu of the priests came to the temple drunk and accidentally lit the Lord’s fire with fire that wasn’t from the animal sacrifices, he burnt them up in flame and told the rest of the Hebrews not to mourn them (Lev. 10:1).

And don’t even think about looking at those other gods! I have a full page of quotations of God emphasizing that he is a jealous God, commanding Moses and his brothers to kill everyone who worshiped the golden calf, and warning against intermarriage with Pagans. Here are two pretty explicit passages from Deuteronomy:

DEU13.6 If thy brother, the son of thy mother, or thy son, or thy daughter, or the wife of thy bosom, or thy friend, which is as thine own soul, entice thee secretly, saying, Let us go and serve other gods, which thou hast not known, thou, nor thy fathers;

DEU13.7 Namely, of the gods of the people which are round about you, nigh unto thee, or far off from thee, from the one end of the earth even unto the other end of the earth;

DEU13.8 Thou shalt not consent unto him, nor hearken unto him; neither shall thine eye pity him, neither shalt thou spare, neither shalt thou conceal him:

DEU13.9 But thou shalt surely kill him; thine hand shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterwards the hand of all the people.

If someone tries to convert you to another religion, don’t talk to him, don’t reason with him – kill him. It’s a good thing Jews don’t take this literally, especially if they live in the South where people love to come up to them and warn them about the fiery consequences of their heathenism. But if a Jew decides to convert to another religion…

DEU 17.2 If there be found among you, within any of thy gates which the LORD thy God giveth thee, man or woman, that hath wrought wickedness in the sight of the LORD thy God, in transgressing his covenant,

DEU17.3 And hath gone and served other gods, and worshipped them, either the sun, or moon, or any of the host of heaven, which I have not commanded;

DEU17.4 And it be told thee, and thou hast heard of it, and inquired diligently, and, behold, it be true, and the thing certain, that such abomination is wrought in Israel:

DEU17.5 Then shalt thou bring forth that man or that woman, which have committed that wicked thing, unto thy gates, even that man or that woman, and shalt stone them with stones, till they die.

The bit about not worshiping the heavenly bodies is interesting. It also appears a couple of chapters earlier in Deuteronomy when Moses is warning the people against idolatry:

“And lest thou lift up thine eyes unto heaven, and when thou seest the sun, and the moon, and the stars, even all the host of heaven, shouldest be driven to worship them, and serve them, which the LORD thy God hath divided unto all nations under the whole heaven.” (Deut. 4:19)>

It says you can’t worship the sun and the stars because they were given for all people of the Earth to enjoy. It’s odd that God seems to be jealous of the sun and the moon, because he created them. It’s probably just because the heavenly bodies aren’t the true God, but it strikes me as weird to create an ethnic hierarchy based on the authenticity of the God or gods diverse peoples worship. Did God not realize that this would create jealousy in the other races, if they read the Torah? And does the way history played out for the Jews suggest that He gave them the tools to deal with this jealousy or not?

Speaking of, why were the Hebrews chosen? Well, not for the reason you would think. Throughout the Pentateuch God makes many references to the Israelites being a “stiff-necked” people – that is, hard to lead, stubborn like an ox. In Genesis, it is never explained why God called to Abraham (possibly because everybody else was worshiping other gods? I’ve heard some sources say it’s because of his faith, but couldn’t it easily be his lack of faith in his family’s religion? There is a story in the Midrash about Abraham smashing the idols in his father’s shop).

God offers this explanation of why he gave the Jews the land of Israel:

“Not for thy righteousness, or for the uprightness of thine heart, dost thou go to possess their land: but for the wickedness of these nations the LORD thy God doth drive them out from before thee, and that he may perform the word which the LORD sware unto thy fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” (Deut. 9:5)

First, he meant to keep the Covenant he swore to Abraham, Isaac, etc, but he sounds like he’s starting to regret making that promise. One would think an omnipotent being wouldn’t be beholden to keeping a promise… and one would think that if he knew the future, he would know the children of Israel would disappoint him multiple times and thus not make the promise in the first place…

Then, he says he is kicking the other nations out because they are wicked, and giving the land to the Israelites because they are less wicked by comparison, even though they drive him crazy with their golden calves and their whining. I feel that, if someone is talking about God’s love, they’re not talking about the God from the Torah. He hates the Jewish people just slightly less than he hates the idol-worshipers, and only leaders like Abraham and Moses come between the Hebrews enjoying the benefits of being the chosen people and total annihilation.

As strict a Father as God was, it’s good to keep in mind that he was still better than the religions at the time (see Moloch). He stopped Abraham from sacrificing Isaac, and told the Hebrews never to make human sacrifices to him, although he still asked for animal sacrifices and assorted blood-rites.

Anyway, enough about our ruling deity. I’ve got a lot of other messed-up stuff to cover!

Like some light incest: Sarah is Abraham’s step-sister (they share a father) and Jacob marries his first cousins. Jacob, Rachel, and Leah have a twisted story: Jacob worked for seven years for the privilege of marrying Rachel, but since Leah was the eldest, her father tricked Jacob and substituted Leah under the marriage veil. Jacob married Leah, and she bore him four sons, but he only loved Rachel. Poor Leah! Even her father didn’t like her – he named her “cow” in Hebrew (while Rachel means “ewe lamb).

And the story of Ishmael: Abraham and Sarah had been trying to get pregnant for a long time and not succeeding, so Sarah tells Abraham to go in to Hagar, her handmaid, so that she can use her as a surrogate mother. However, as soon as she gets pregnant, Hagar starts looking down on Sarah. Then they fight, and the pregnant Hagar leaves the camp. She prays to God and he tells her to go back to Abraham, and that she will have a son named Ishmael who will be the father of a great nation. God also tells her that “he shall be a wild ass among men; his hand [shall be] against every man, and every man’s hand against him; and he shall dwell over against all his brethren” (Gen 16:12). Muslims do consider Ishmael to be their ancestor, and there is a Bedouin saying that goes, “I against my brother, my brothers and I against my cousins, then my cousins and I against strangers” which sounds very similar to the quotation from the Bible about Ishmael being against every man. There’s some controversy about whether the prophecy concerning Ishmael is for Ishmael alone or for his descendants (the Arabs and Bedouins) as well. I’m torn about the issue because on the one hand, it seems racist to say that a particular people will never get along with their neighbors, but on the other hand, there has been fighting in the Middle East as far back in history as I know, so it’s tempting to think that the prophecy came true. I don’t know what to believe on this point.

And the Midianite genocide: After Sarah died, Abraham married Keturah (actually Hagar’s new name when she returns to Abraham), who had six sons by him, including Midian, the ancestor of the Midianites. In Exodus, Moses marries Zipporah of the Midianite tribe and in Numbers, the Hebrews kill all the Midianites (on God’s orders). Moses had told Zipporah to go back to her people – this means that she was likely killed in the genocide. If the Midianites are descendents of Abraham, and Moses was married to a Midianite woman, why did God command Moses to lead the Hebrews to kill the Midianites? “Because they were going to lead the Israelites into sexual immorality and idolatry” is the standard answer… but couldn’t they have been re-converted? Why so harsh a punishment?

There are some good things to be learned from the Bible: do not covet, punish masters who strike their maids or servants, and be kind to strangers, leave some food in the corners of your orchards for the poor, and lend to your brothers sufficient for his need.

But it also has some rules that aren’t so great, mainly, the infamous lex talionis: “And if any mischief follow, then thou shalt give life for life, Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, Burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe” (Exo. 21.23-25). This was interpreted by the rabbis as monetary equal compensation, but it’s pretty dangerous if interpreted literally. As Ghandi said, “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind”.

“Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” (Exo. 22:18) is another one that’s caused a lot of strife by inspiring witch-hunts. It’s interpreted that witchcraft is a kind of idolatry because their power comes from themselves and not from God. There’s also the accusation that witches deceive people by selling potions and services that are ineffective. But again as with a lot of the other rules given to the Israelites, the punishment seems too harsh for the crime.

There are also rules endorsing sexism and homophobia: a woman’s vows can be confirmed or nullified by her husband (Num. 30:13), women and men cannot wear clothing pertaining to the opposite sex (Deut. 22:5), and a man who lies with another man as he would a woman should be put to death (Lev. 20:13). Slavery is also okay, as long as you buy from other tribes (Lev. 25:45).

Looping back to the topic of Jewish separateness, there are some strange rules considering treatment of fellow Israelites vs treatment of others: “Thou shall not eat of any thing that dieth of itself: thou shalt give it unto the stranger that is in thy gates, that he may eat it; or thou mayest sell it unto an alien: for thou art an holy people unto the LORD thy God” (Deut. 14:21). Animals that die of themselves are probably diseased… or just really old and gross. It makes sense to say that you can’t sell it to your brothers, but you can sell it to others? It doesn’t say anything that you should tell the person you’re selling to that it died on its own either. What if your poisoned meat killed somebody? It might start a war, or lead to discrimination against your tribe. Ever heard the phrase “You Jewed me out of [something]”? I don’t mean to justify the stereotype, but I find it really disturbing that there’s some basis for it in the Torah.

There’s a similar rule about usury: “Unto a stranger thou mayest lend upon usury; but unto thy brother thou shalt not lend upon usury” (Deut. 23:20). In one sense this is smart business, but it can also be seen as discriminatory by giving your own race special treatment (not that this doesn’t happen all the time in society as privilege). “For the LORD thy God blesseth thee, as he promised thee: and thou shalt lend unto many nations, but thou shalt not borrow; and thou shalt reign over many nations, but they shall not reign over thee” (Deut. 15:6). Also smart, but, uh… what happens when the rest of the world catches on?

The Torah says, “When thou comest nigh unto a city to fight against it, then proclaim peace unto it. And it shall be, if it make thee answer of peace, and open unto thee, then it shall be, that all the people that is found therein shall be tributaries unto thee, and they shall serve thee (Deut. 20:10-20:11). Is it peace if you’re still conquering, but without violence? Do language differences make sharing the land difficult? Is there not enough land to share? Are they unwilling to share their resources with the Israelites, who probably don’t have anything to trade? Or is it that because of a sense of religious superiority, because God promised the land to them?

Also, Deuteronomy 28 is worth a read, at least for entertainment value. Here God expounds the 14 blessings he will give to the Israelites if they obey his laws, and the 54 curses he will heap upon them if they disobey. Many of the curses sound a lot like what happened to the Jews in history, “The LORD shall bring a nation against thee from far, from the end of the earth, as swift as the eagle flieth; a nation whose tongue thou shalt not understand. A nation of fierce countenance, which shall not regard the person of the old, nor shew favour to the young (Deut. 28:49-50)”. This is regarded as a prophecy about the Romans conquering Judea. There’s also this line, which is poetic, but I’m not sure what it’s referring to: “In the morning thou shalt say, Would God it were even! and at even thou shalt say, Would God it were morning! for the fear of thine heart wherewith thou shalt fear, and for the sight of thine eyes which thou shalt see. ( Deut. 28.67). It almost sounds like depression, maybe a depression where you can’t sleep at night but you don’t want to live out your days… and this line (although it’s from a slightly later chapter) is especially ominous for those of us living in first world countries, “For when I shall have brought them into the land which I sware unto their fathers, that floweth with milk and honey; and they shall have eaten and filled themselves, and waxen fat; then will they turn unto other gods, and serve them, and provoke me, and break my covenant” (Deut. 31:20). It makes you wonder if any of this is true, if the Jewish people are suffering the curses God says he would curse them with if they turned to other gods (ex: wealth, knowledge, sexiness, liberalism? Who knows? It’s enough to shake someone’s disbelief).

Anyway, so that is my first impression upon reading the Torah. It might change in a few years, or it might not. I’ve heard people tend to get more religious as they get older, so I’m not going to write it off as a possibility. For anyone wondering why I didn’t choose a Jewish version, I chose the King James Version because that’s the one that seems to be quoted the most often in literature and I’ve heard it’s the most poetic to read. I’m a book reviewer, not a theologian, so definitely take my “review” with a couple grains of salt (or throw them over your shoulder if Deuteronomy 28 intimidates you!).

And one more rule, just for fun:

DEUT 4:18 [You may not worship] The likeness of any thing that creepeth on the ground, the likeness of any fish that is in the waters beneath the earth:”

No Cthulhu worship! I wonder if Lovecraft was trying to play on the horrors of idolatry? :P

Rating: Not Rated


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